A Drop of Ink: Trusted News Becoming Ever More Essential
By Reed Anfinson
“A people without reliable news are, sooner or later, a people without a basis of freedom.”
British political theorist
Perhaps we’ve been wrong about there not being any newspapers left once your community newspaper’s starvation diet of internet pennies and lost print advertising kills it. Maybe wrong, but not in a good way. We are being replaced by sophisticated sources of misinformation and journalism-destroying Wall Street investors.
Three kinds of “newspapers” are slinking into our communities: hedge fund-owned newspapers, pink slime newspapers, and now A.I. newspapers.
Hedge funds have purchased hundreds of newspapers nationwide, stripped them of staff, closed community offices, and filled them with fluff. Their sole purpose is to suck as much revenue as possible from advertisers and readers before walking away. In the meantime, the community is starved of meaningful news.
Pink slime publications and internet sites are designed to look local but, in reality, are owned by political parties, lobbyists, political action committees, and even foreign countries. Their purpose is to deceive us, bending our minds to their interests.
Now there is a third kind of disinformation threat to America’s citizens from big cities to rural villages – artificial intelligence (A.I.) created publications. Unlike pink slime publications, they don’t need an organization behind them. They can be produced by a person with a grudge or political target. They have the potential to look incredibly legitimate despite their producer’s lack of talent or resources.
“Michael Martinez, managing editor of the Suncoast Sentinel, is a foodie who loves jazz, volunteers at local homeless shelters and spends his days hiking in Florida’s state parks,” Alex Mahadevan writes in an article for the Poynter. It is a non-profit journalism school and research organization.
Sounds like Martinez is a nice guy. He has been a journalist for 15 years and “has a reputation for being a strong leader and excellent mentor,” Mahadevan writes. The Suncoast Sentinel has an attractive flag branding the top of its page, has a great-looking staff of writers and photographers, and is entirely fake.
The newspaper and its staff don’t exist. Their photos were A.I. generated. The newspaper and its staff were created in less than 30 minutes. By asking the computer application ChatGPT to create a community newspaper with a respected editor and staff, Martinez was able to start a non-existent publication.
Its deceptive power is enhanced by the ability to write like a journalist. Let’s say you are a Twin Cities dweller who thinks farmers are using too much groundwater for their crops, you could ask the A.I. program to write an article about a host of threats farmers pose to our drinking water reserves and quality.
In seconds, the A.I. program will surf the world wide web, gathering data and then write it into a convincing story published in your entirely made-up newspaper. The data doesn’t have to be from trusted sources of scientific research.
That fake newspaper article could then be targeted at metropolitan members of the Minnesota Legislature who become motivated to enact laws highly restricting water use and chemicals that could pollute aquifers.
“In just a few hours, anyone with minimal coding ability and an ax to grind could launch networks of false local news sites — with plausible-but-fake news items, staff and editorial policies — using ChatGPT,” Mahadevan writes.
Local government units could use A.I. to create glowing stories about their actions and email stories from its publication to all the citizens they serve. At the same time, information that citizens need to know could be hidden or downplayed. That’s the information future we are becoming a part of, and it will get even more sophisticated with each passing month.
“Many communities have moved from good information, to no information, to deceptive information,” Steve Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America, writes.
Deceiving the reader is going to become A.I.-assisted child’s play. Where does that leave citizens of a representative democracy who depend on trusted information to assess those elected to serve their needs?
More than 3,400 newspapers have been lost since 2000. In rural Minnesota and rural America, we face a significant challenge in keeping our doors open even with marginal local support.
For newspapers to survive, they need a reliable source of income today and in the future. Trust in that future income allows us to sell our locally owned publications to another community journalist who will give it the same dedication we have. How do we bring someone to our rural communities to take over our publications if they see no future for it? This challenge is an ongoing crisis for rural newspaper owners. Some owners are closing their doors and walking away after failing to find a buyer.
If there is no future for community newspapers, what is the future of an informed electorate in America? What will bind us together as a community?
As the internet’s ability to deceive becomes increasingly sophisticated, the importance of the local print newspaper grows. A newspaper published by local owners is a trusted source of news. Its staff is known to you and available when you have questions. As people are increasingly drawn to addictive sites like TikTok, their online time consumed by entertainment, the importance of a persistently visible print publication grows.
Every attempt to help fund newspapers has been defeated in Congress. This is partially due to our ties to the hedge-fund-owned newspapers that have been destroying journalism in America.
Most of the publications lost in America are in small towns. Most of the threatened publications are in small towns. Perhaps, the solution for rural America’s family-owned newspapers could be found in the new farm bill that is being written by Congress.
Newspapers are a public good and deserve public support. We are essential to a healthy, informed community. Nothing replaces us.
This is Sunshine Week in America. It is a week dedicated to newspapers shining a light on government to keep citizens informed.